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Capping of a Legacy with a Win for the Ages

November 26, 2008  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Zach Terrell was one of several seniors who turned a 1-10 program in 2005 around to back-to-back Big South Conference champions.

Zach Terrell was one of several seniors who turned a 1-10 program in 2005 around to back-to-back Big South Conference champions.

Editorial Note: This article ran in the Flames Illustrated football game day program on Nov. 22 (Elon game). During the contest, the Flames' senior class led Liberty to a win over No. 12 Elon, marking the highest ranked opponent Liberty has beaten in program history. The victory also gave the Flames a 10-2 record, accounting for the most wins in a single season.

The classic movie "The Bad News Bears" makes a losing season seem rather comical. In reality, the results can be far more damaging to an athlete's psyche. Immediately following a 1-10 campaign in 2005, the current seniors on Liberty's football team were not laughing. As first-year players, they were expecting to begin their collegiate career with a solid season. What occurred instead was a year of disappointment, they hoped to forget.

Running back Zach Terrell remembers coming off a 14-0 season, en route to a state championship his senior year of high school. Hoping to continue the trend his freshman year at Liberty, the rusher became shocked as the defeats began to mount. "I'd never lost that many games before," Terrell said. "It was a new experience for me. I wasn't used to that."

Others on the team experienced feelings of discouragement and even debated leaving the program. Defensive back Patrick Calvary recalls talking with assistant coach Marshall Roberts, discussing the possibilities of playing football elsewhere. Roberts told his young pupil to give the new head coach a chance. Heeding Robert's advice, Calvary chose to remain at Liberty. Reminiscing on his decision, the cornerback knows he made the right choice.

"I'm glad I stayed here," he said. "I can't regret anything with the 1-10 season, because everything happens for a reason. "

Before the start of the 2006 season, a defensive minded coach, fresh off a stint at the University of Virginia, stepped in to take the program's reins. As coach Danny Rocco began talking to his newly inherited players, a newfound optimism began to replace their disheartened demeanor.

"Off the bat, I just knew it was going to be a good fit," linebacker Ian Childress said. "Everybody just got really excited when he first came in."

Realizing he needed to establish trust with the team, Rocco began making small promises to his players, assuring them that their hard work and determination would pay off. The litmus test came in the form of a match-up against St. Paul's, Rocco's first contest as head coach. A dominating defensive performance combined with an aggressive running attack from a Pittsburgh transfer named Rashad Jennings allowed Liberty to shut out the Tigers, 27-0.

Possessing a plethora of potential, Liberty ended its inaugural season under Rocco at 6-5. Marked as a "Season to Remember" the Flames efforts tied the nation's best turnaround and upended the program's record books. The offense proved they could protect the pigskin better than their predecessors, setting a record in fewest interceptions (5) and fumbles (10), with only three fumbles recovered by the opposing team.

Defensively, Liberty shut out its opponents on three occasions, snapping the previous record set in 1979. The Flames also broke another record held by the historic 1979 team, as they held their opponents to a combined total of 172 points, besting the former record by four points. Special teams also achieved a program best with three kickoff returns, surpassing the 1995 team's mark of two.

In just one season, the culture of Liberty Football had started to change. The program's revitalization brought out throngs of Flames fans, who filled the stands with Liberty red, white and blue. At the 2006 Homecoming game against William & Mary, 15,631 spectators came out to Williams Stadium, shattering the previous single-game attendance numbers by over 3,000.

The team itself now had the confidence it lacked the following year. With a season of redemption under their belts, the Flames vowed to never look back. "We just wanted to push ourselves not to be that school ever again," Calvary said.

Liberty's theme for the 2007 season told the story the following year, as Rocco and his team went from "Good2Great."

The offense shined even brighter than the previous season, posting the highest point total in program history with 469. Liberty also shattered the program's record for most touchdowns, finding the end zone 61 times. The Flames defense bettered itself as well, allowing the fewest rushing yards in school history.

Sticking to adage that special teams win games, Liberty's unit reached new heights, posting 413 punt return yards, four punt returns for touchdowns, 15 field goals and 56 extra points.

Finishing the season, 8-3, the Flames captured their first ever Big South title with 22 players garnering all-conference honors. Two seasons removed from being 1-10, Liberty officially transformed into a conference powerhouse. Positive thoughts now exuded the minds of players who had once danced with defeat.

"It's kind of like playing on two totally different teams," long snapper Dan Pope said. "It's a totally different mindset."

After ending 2007 with a conference championship, the Flames returned this year determined to settle "Unfinished Business" and win in the postseason. For the first time in 10 years, Liberty debuted in the Sports Network FCS poll, remaining in the top 25 all season long, en route to a second conference title. Currently, the Flames sit at 9-2, joining the 1979 and 1997 squads as the only three teams to post nine wins.

"Before, I kind of felt like we were hoping to have a chance to win and now, we go into the game expecting to win," Britt Stone said.

Winning is not the only trait that makes this team special. The cliques that often develop within the various positions on a team do not exist in the Flames' locker room. Instead, Liberty Football is like a close knit family with its seniors acting as the older brothers.

"The more chemistry you have, the better your team will be," wide receiver Dominic Bolden said. "We just wanted everyone to have that chemistry and that bond, so we have more of a family like feel."

Each senior on the team carries with him a unique story. Stone, an elder member of the program, redshirted his freshman year after sitting out the entire 2004 season with a broken wrist. This setback turned into a fortunate accident, as the offensive lineman earned an extra year of eligibility and became an instrumental component in both championship runs.

Jonathan Crawford, one of the few seniors to not experience the 1-10 season, returned to Liberty after redshirting in 2005. Upon his return, the one-time defensive back switched over to wide out, becoming a mainstay on the Flames offense.

"I definitely think it was the Lord that brought me back here," Crawford said. "I went and visited other schools, but nothing seemed right. Nothing seemed to fit me the way Liberty fit me."

Similarly, Terrell began his collegiate career as a back-up quarterback, before stepping in as the team's starting rusher halfway through 2005. With the addition of Jennings, Terrell's role has changed slightly, but that has not stopped him from being a key player on offense.

"At first it was kind of hard because you're used to being on the field all the time and then, you come in and you've got to do what's best for the team," Terrell stated. "I've adjusted to it. It has helped me learn the offense more at different positions."

Now heading into their final game of the season, the Flames are just one game back of becoming the first 10-win team in program history. With a chance of being able to literally go from one end of the spectrum to the other, the seniors are determined to walk out of Williams Stadium for the last time victorious.

"Every senior likes to win their last home game on Senior Day," defensive lineman Kevin Richard said. "It would just mean a lot to the seniors, because we've been through a lot."

Richard's statement speaks volume. In 2005, few gave the Flames a chance of winning a game let alone a conference championship. These days when Liberty drops a contest, fans beg the question, "How did you guys lose?"

"In two short years, they have changed the entire expectation and outlook for Liberty University Football, and for somewhat, athletics," Rocco said. "In my mind, they truly are the group that has led this charge and hopefully will be remembered as such."

For weeks, Rocco has asked his players how they will be remembered. His answer to them – as a 10-win team-they will be remembered as the greatest football team in program history. In Rocco's mind, such a feat would be icing on the cake for a class that has endured so much adversity.

"That's the way I'd love see this group go out, because I think that's what they deserve."
Eric Brown is a copywriter for Liberty's University Advancement office, assigned to cover athletics.